The Midnight Ride of Louis-Joseph Papineau: Vermont and the Patriote Rebellion of 1837/8

It’s the early hours of a December morning in 1837, and a group of men are riding hard through the forests of northern Vermont. Many miles behind them, in hot pursuit, are agents of the British government in Canada. Those fleeing are Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Canadian Patriote Party, and a group of his comrades. Just weeks earlier, the Patriotes, who had been lobbying the British authorities for reforms in the colony of Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec), had met in St. Charles, Quebec, and determined to take up arms.  Warrants were issued for the arrest of Papineau and his friends, who, facing the hangman’s noose for treason, were fleeing for their lives, across the international boundary, to seek safe haven in the United States.

Louis-Joseph Papineau, portrait by Antoine Pamandon, 1836. Musée des Beaux Arts, Montréal

Louis-Joseph Papineau, portrait by Antoine Pamandon, 1836. Musée des Beaux Arts, Montréal


The Patriote cause, which began as a political movement calling for liberal reforms in Lower Canada, had become an armed insurrection in October 1837 after a series of attempts by Papineau to extract reforms from the British authorities. Their fight, which was short-lived and bloody, consisted of a series of battles in present-day Quebec and Ontario, many close to the US border.  This episode, known as the “Lower Canada Rebellion” or the “Rebellions of 1837-8” is commemorated annually in Quebec with a public holiday, the Journée Nationale des Patriotes. The Patriote Insurrection has been a touchstone of French Canadian nationalist history for centuries. What’s less talked about, however, is the connection between the Patriotes and New England.

Papineau’s flight through the Vermont countryside was romantically described by the Burlington Free Press, but it was very much a passage through the state; by 1839, Papineau was in New York City, where he boarded a ship that took him to France, where he unsuccessfully petitioned the French government to intervene on behalf of his cause. Nonetheless, a number of Patriotes did settle in Vermont after the uprising, living in exile until 1842, when the British government offered a pardon to those who had participated (Papineau himself returned to Montreal in 1845, after he received additional assurances for his personal liberty).

In the meantime, the Patriotes found a generally warm reception in northern Vermont. Even on that snowy December evening (at least according to the Free Press), Vermonters were sympathetic to the fleeing French Canadians, and hostile to the pursuing British. The paper describes an incident which may well be straight from the editorial board’s imagination, but which likely reflected public sentiment:


It was in vain that the pursuing party expostulated and endeavored to prove the pacific character of their mission—nobody would listen to a word of it. and they [the British] were generally insulted, by those in whom they applied for Information. ”You want to catch Mr Papineau, do you !” said an Amazon of a woman, flourishing her broom stick significantly at friend Lane ; “but let me tell you the sooner you get hack to Canada the better, you blond-thirsty monster! — If my husband was here, you’d catch it.”


That Vermonters were sympathetic to the Patriote cause is not hard to imagine. Not only did the Patriotes draw on American political thought for examples, but the American Revolution was still (just about) within living memory, and Vermont’s own struggle for recognition from New Hampshire and New York was more recent still (1791). Americans, in general, had been following the events in the Canadas keenly.   As an example, the Ohio-based Toledo Blade printed this notice from a correspondent from Detroit, describing the Battle of Windsor in the southern part of Upper Canada (modern Ontario), just across the Detroit River from Michigan:


The Patriots took possession of the steam boat Champlain, and commenced landing opposite Detroit about ½ past twelve this morning [Dec. 4, 1838]. At 8 o’clock there was a battle between the Patriots and a company of British Regulars…The British force, arms, ammunition &c, &c, fell into the hands of the Patriots. The steamboat Thames…the barracks and several other buildings [in Windsor] were burned…Detroit is in a complete uproar, no business is attended to: the wharves are crowded with citizens and strangers.


Battle of St-Eustache, Quebec, 1837. Painting 1839 by Charles Beauclerk.

Battle of St-Eustache, Quebec, 1837. Painting 1839 by Charles Beauclerk.

Despite the interest from Americans, the US government did not intervene in the uprising. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the insurrection, some Patriotes did find the US a safe haven from British authorities. The community in Vermont was particularly active – from August 1839 to February 1840, they published a newspaper in Burlington, Le Patriote Canadien.  This, the first French-language newspaper in Vermont, was the product of Ludger Duvernay, the former publisher of the pro-Patriote journal, La Minerve of Montreal. As a supporter of the rebellion, Duvernay was one of those who fled to Vermont, Burlington in particular. Duvernay’s press also published a history of the insurrection written by Louis-Joseph Papineau, in 1839 (this work had first been published in Paris, but this was the first North American edition). In addition to the newspaper, the Franco-American community in Northern Vermont gained a St Jean-Baptiste day celebration and a French-speaking priest under the diocese of Montréal, thanks in part to the efforts of Duvernay, who returned to Canada in 1842.

The Patriotes weren’t the first French-Canadian or Franco-Americans to live in Northern Vermont, and the population didn’t disappear when some of the Patriote leaders returned to Canada in the 1840s.  In the 1850 census, Chittenden County had a population of 3,000 French Canadians; by 1867, Winooski was effectively half Franco-American. And in a sign that the area’s connections to French Canada continue to this day, the Burlington business community has worked hard to promote tourism with Quebec. So on this long holiday weekend, visitors from Montreal who drove to Burlington would have been greeted by road signs in French and business owners who have taken advantage of French lessons offered by the local Chamber of Commerce.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.